Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season. Virago Modern Classics, 2006

In a Summer Season takes its title from the opening line of the medieval alliterative poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman. This alerts us to the likelihood of a story that will involve a quest for a good, honest life and essential truth in the face of vice and worldly obstacles – a search for a vision of what the world might be, uncorrupted. This will involve epiphanies and life-changing experiences.

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season cover VMC editionThe surprising amount of sex in the novel is largely due to the mid-life crisis of the protagonist, Kate Heron, an attractive woman in her early 40s who lives in a comfortable former vicarage in a middle-class commuter neighbourhood of big houses and what Kate sourly calls ‘Underwriter Georgian’ developments (it’s the Thames Valley, just an hour by train from London). It’s the era when Kate’s class of women didn’t work (husbands did that) and kept servants; Kate has the eccentric cook-housekeeper Mrs Meacock and an irascible gardener.

After the death of her first husband Alan she’d quickly married again, a year before the action of this novel begins. Her second husband is a charming but irresponsible ‘drifter’ called Dermot, ten years her junior, only ten years older than her son Tom. His only interests are gambling and drinking and feeling sorry for himself. Kate’s maiden aunt, Ethel, who lives with her in a state of sadly genteel dependency, considers Dermot a fellow ‘parasite’ – a view that’s harder on herself than on Dermot. At least she teaches cello to Kate’s untalented 16-year-old boarding school daughter Louisa, on the long summer holiday during which the novel’s action takes place, emphasising that sense of change and mutability that the title hints at. Ethel encourages in Lou the passion for classical music that Kate’s late husband shared with his wife and daughter, and which bores Dermot and Tom (who prefers jazz) – they’re like twins, not stepfather and son. Two Hamlet types (more on that later).

Most other people in this affluent, worldly neighbourhood assume Dermot married Kate for her money. Even he dimly perceives the truth of this, though he likes to think he’s passionately in love with her – hence all the sex – and this enables him to convince himself that he is no parasite. Kate’s self-deceit mirrors his: for her the sex sustains and justifies this mismatched marriage; she’s allowing lust to cloud her judgement and overcome her growing sense of guilt and shame. Even teenaged Louisa perceives that her mother is competing with her older brother Tom’s string of girlfriends, of whom Kate feels jealous, and that in marrying Dermot she thought she’d be getting a sexually fulfilling partner and a loving son. He’s the Oedipal Hamlet to a Gertrude who doubles as Ophelia.

In a series of keenly observed scenes characters and relationships are revealed: Kate at the hairdresser’s, apparently unaware that dyeing her greying hair and ‘making herself look young for her husband’ makes her seem pathetic – or maybe she chooses not to see this. In the opening scene she visits Dermot’s wealthy, elegant mother Edwina, who never rises from her bed before noon, and who greets Kate superciliously:

“That’s a nice suit,” she said in a surprised voice.

Kate had felt just right, perfectly dressed for a day in London, until Edwina had come downstairs. She still thought she could not have chosen better and wondered if what was wrong with the effect – and something was now seen to be – was herself. She hadn’t a London face like her mother-in-law’s, her skin was a different colour and she looked too healthy for the dark suit – a country woman dressed up in London clothes.

In the introduction to this VMC edition Elizabeth Russell Taylor writes that In a Summer Season has a ‘nugatory’ plot, and no ‘concern with consciousness or big themes’. She cites Taylor’s comment that she could ‘never write about tragedies’. But the novel has other elements like those in Hamlet, and there are verbal echoes that subtly indicate this.

When Kate’s closest friend Dorothea died some years earlier, the widower Charles – the two couples had been best friends – left to work overseas, taking his daughter Araminta with him. Halfway through the novel they return, bringing to a crisis Kate’s crumbling confidence in feckless Dermot, as she realises Charles has the cultural sophistication and emotional maturity she’d loved in Alan, and which Dermot so palpably lacks. Araminta has grown up to become a beautiful but shallow young woman, training to be a fashion model. She’s the same age as Kate’s son Tom: 22. He unwisely falls madly in love with her, but she’s not cut out to be his Ophelia, for she enjoys simply flirting and being admired by men, preferring Dermot’s carefree superficiality – and propensity for driving his sports car too fast. All very tangled and ominous.

When the two families resume their intimacy Charles ruefully admits he ‘hardly knows’ his glamorous, vampish daughter. She makes him feel ‘as old as Polonius’, he jokes. Kate’s reply, that she can’t understand why Polonius was always made to look so old, subtly reveals her own discomfort at playing Gertrude to child-like Dermot (and his twin soul, Tom).

Dermot behaves like a petulant child. She gives him ‘motherly smile[s]’, indulging his latest hare-brained money-making scheme (growing mushrooms in an outhouse). When Charles and Kate share a private joke about a woman they know (who’d introduced Kate and Dermot, so it’s not a trivial topic) name-checking a character in Alan and Kate’s favourite novel, The Spoils of Poynton, Dermot, culturally void, is nonplussed and feels excluded – adding to his default emotional state of disgruntled thirty-something moody adolescent, unable to understand why he’s so angry with everyone.

When he finds James’s novel lying around and reads the inscription in it that Alan had written for Kate – a couplet from Donne’s ‘The Anniversary’, with the line ‘Who is so safe as we?’, he again feels excluded and ignorant, ashamed when he realises he’d missed the literary allusion, and that the grown-ups had pretended not to notice in order not to embarrass him. Kate, on the other hand, is aware that the “safety” she’d found with Alan has been lost with Dermot.

Dermot’s mother Edwina, briefly mentioned above, ‘a proper Harrods woman’ in his dismissive opinion because of her passion for shopping, is a poor role model for him. When Kate in the opening scene pays her a duty call (Dermot is too feckless to endure visiting his mother and exposing himself to her misguided attempts to find him a job he might hold down) Edwina proposes her latest business scheme for Dermot – as hare-brained as his mushroom-growing. Sensing Kate’s resistant embarrassment, she says she’s worried about her reprobate son, and had hoped that marriage would ‘make him settle down.’ Her elder son Gordon had ‘always said so’, and he’s a ‘model husband and father… An actuary. “Whatever the hell that may be,” Dermot had said.’ As ‘industrious’ and ‘utterly selfless’ as his father had been (a Claudius figure?). She’d always wondered why Dermot was ‘so different’:

“Perhaps he takes after you,” Kate said. Her voice was bold, and no longer under control.

To her surprise, Edwina’s face softened. She looked dreamy and pleased with herself. “I was certainly a handful when I was a girl,” she said. “Gracious, the escapades, the parties, the young men. ‘She is like a butterfly and no one will ever manage to catch her,’ they used to say.”

“Then Patrick [Dermot’s father] caught you and shut you up all alone in the drawing-room, while he went off to work on his papers.”

“It was the beauty of his voice I couldn’t escape. The Irish in it.”

 

The ironies in this brief exchange are typical of the novel’s subtlety throughout. For Edwina goes on to mention that although Gordon has no ‘trace of it’, Dermot has that Irish brogue ‘only when he was trying to get round [her].’

“Oh, it was a very happy marriage. I had everything I wanted. He worshipped the ground I walked on . I was just a little bored sometimes in the evenings.”

“Harrods being closed,” thought Kate.

 

Kate allows herself this moment of superiority over Edwina’s shallow complacency, but is blind to the similarity of her own Freudian-Shakespearean domestic/marital trap with Dermot.

I’ve posted in the past about these ‘Madame Bovary’ narratives that deal with commuter-belt middle-aged women in despair at the dreariness and lack of fulfilment in their lives, their dim sense of being defined only in terms of their husbands, from Evan Connell’s Mr and Mrs Bridge to Taylor’s own short stories. The ‘summer season’ in which the narrative takes place heightens the sense of temporariness and looming disaster for the meticulously, perceptively anatomised central characters, all with their own defects and thwarted dreams. I particularly like prurient Aunt Ethel, and teenage Louisa with her hopeless schoolgirl crush on the virginal curate with the wonderful name of Father Blizzard.

Apologies for writing at such length; this novel is packed with so much understated, apparently inconsequential but essential and artfully constructed detail that it’s difficult to do it justice in brief.

PS 11 July: I asked fellow bloggers to supply links to any posts they’d done on IASS: in case you don’t scroll down through the comments to find them, here they are:

Liz Dexter, Adventures in Reading, Running and Working From Home

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has links to four of her own posts HERE

…and this link is to her roundup of other bloggers’ posts who’d joined in her readalong – including HeavenAli’s

Can one trust a sonata? Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace, pt 2

[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.

 Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:

1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.

Psalmanazar's Formosa

An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).

Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):

“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”

Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).

I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).

Newman In P Disgrace coverIn a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:

Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.

He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:

Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.

Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.

Ouch.

Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:

Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?

Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:

…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.

When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:

Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.

An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:

How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.

‘In Treatment – Series 1’: DVD review

Dr Paul Weston

Dr Paul Weston

For some years HBO has been producing  the best TV drama in the English language.  Quintessentially American themes and settings are central in Boardwalk Empire, John Adams, The Sopranos, The Wire and Treme (and there’s a noticeable spanning of historical periods there, too), while the fluctuating fortunes of American service personnel in harrowing foreign conflicts are the basis of Band of Brothers and Generation Kill – where the action again spans two different periods of recent history.

In Treatment is set in the contemporary USA, but it’s an adaptation by Rodrigo Garcia of an Israeli TV series Be Tipul created by Hagai Levi, who became one of HBO’s executive producers for the programme, along with Garcia, Steve Levinson and Mark Wahlberg.  The themes are therefore universal:  what makes human beings behave the way we do, and how do we cope when our lives unravel?

So far I’ve only watched season 1 (there were three, which aired between 2008-2010).  An unusual feature when In Treatment originally aired on TV was that each nightly episode showed one patient’s session with Dr Paul Weston (played by the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, thankfully using his native accent, thus flouting the HBO tradition of employing actors from the British Isles to play American-accented characters), a psychotherapist in his early 50s practising successfully in Maryland, and there were five episodes per week, one per patient.  Unlike soap operas, where multiple storylines intertwine and develop separately in each episode, this enabled the writers and directors to concentrate on one storyline per night, and really probe deeply into the life of the patient and their dilemmas, while also developing Paul’s increasingly complicated reactions to the problems presented by his patients, and his growing inability to remain emotionally detached.

The pattern in Series 1 was that the four different patients featured Monday-Thursday for eight weeks, then in week nine, for various reasons, only two stories remained.  The fifth episode each week featured Paul’s own  sessions with his former therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest), in which he attempted to wrestle with his own conflicts arising from his interaction with his patients, and, in later episodes, accompanied by his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes), as his ailing marriage came under scrutiny .  There were thus 43 half-hour episodes in the series.

Gina, who supervises and counsels Paul

Gina, who supervises and counsels Paul

Some of the patient stories were more engaging than others – but isn’t this true of real life?  The outstanding story for me was that of the teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful, Sophie (superbly played by Mia Wasikowska, who went on to play the eponymous ingenue heroine in Tim Burton’s 2010-11 Alice in Wonderland – a very different role from Sophie), who seems to have a death-wish resulting from the unbearable emotional pressures she experienced in childhood – her father was a photographer who specialised in female nudes and personal promiscuity; she idealizes him and deprecates her long-suffering, fraught and loyal mother.  As the weekly sessions develop under Paul’s gentle, caring gaze, and he gains Sophie’s trust and affection, subtly enabling her to see the cruelty and weakness of her selfish father, Sophie slowly discovers the truth of her parents’ natures, and learns how intolerable it was to have had the burden of a shared secret placed upon her by her philandering dad.

The other most successful patient story for me was that of the Navy pilot hero, Alex (Blair Underwood), who on a bombing mission in Iraq accidentally caused the deaths of children.  Brashly confident, even arrogant on the surface, Alex feels guilt and remorse underneath; this inner conflict resulted in his suffering a heart attack.  Although Alex believes he’s recovered physically, Paul faces the weighty problem of trying to convince him that his problems have not been resolved during their weeks of treatment, while Alex is determined to cajole Paul into giving him a clean bill of mental health so that he can return to combat duty.

Navy pilot Alex

Navy pilot Alex

Where the set-up became a little stagey and less convincing, I think, was in the most emotionally tangled storyline: a beautiful doctor in her late 20s, Laura (Melissa George) presents herself as someone who believes the only way she can induce men to relate to her is through sex.  Worse, she declares that she has fallen in love with Paul.  By the end of Series 1 Paul has had to confront his own feelings for Laura, and the possibility that he  drove his wife Kate into an affair with another man.  Paul’s weekly sessions with Gina become the most compelling in the series.  They show a different side of Paul’s character: he’s in denial, angry, vulnerable, and takes out his frustration on the always patient Gina.  There’s history between the two of them, and this back-story gradually emerges over the episodes.  It will clearly develop further and become clearer in Series 2 and 3.

The final storyline involves a passionate but fractious young married couple, Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), who have come to see Paul initially to resolve a clash of views about whether Amy should abort the child with which she is pregnant, but subsequently to deal with more complicated issues arising from their constant fighting.  Amy’s supercilious patronizing of her husband incenses him, yet she hates it when he starts treating her with more sensitivity.  Paul faces a difficult task in trying to prevent these two tearing each other, and their marriage, to pieces.

It has probably become apparent by now that the storylines aren’t selected in a random way: they all comment on and infiltrate into each other in the viewer’s mind (and Paul’s, and ultimately into the lives of his increasingly imperilled family).  As the ninth week finishes there are still unresolved issues and crises which in some cases are almost unbearably tense and emotionally draining for the participants and the viewer.

And that’s what makes this series such compelling viewing.  The situation is audaciously undramatic: most of each episode is set almost entirely in Paul’s consulting room.  We gradually become familiar with the objects with which he has filled it, and understand their symbolic significance: the numerous model sailboats, the perpetually swirling tube of blue liquid (a desktop toy) usually glimpsed in the background as his patients unwillingly, fearfully tap into the swirling emotions that have brought them to this room.  There is intense drama here, and it’s mostly conveyed through facial expressions and the struggles of the characters to suppress as well as explore emotional states, as well as through the inevitably lengthy dialogues between Paul and his patients.  We see and feel their pain, yet this is done without prurience or making us feel we’re intruding.  This is us up there on the couch.  All of us.

Byrne’s performance is what holds the whole thing together.  He dares to act quietly (until he’s in his sessions with Gina; then he’s transformed.)  Although the therapist’s role by definition requires a character who listens and watches, refrains from dramatic interventions or snap decisions, resists provocation from vulnerable patients who often lash out (or try to seduce), Byrne succeeds with masterful subtlety in convincing us that here is a man who is deeply caring and professional, committed to trying to help these people, and yet also deeply flawed.  His eyes show all this, and the way he holds his hands or tilts his head and regards the person opposite him, his face a mask of neutrality but with deep compassion and love shining through (but with Gina his less professional self is revealed – with her he shows that he lacks insight into himself.)  As the weeks pass by we are drip-fed tiny drops of information about his own emotionally traumatic past, his own conflicts, doubts and weaknesses.

The show has been criticised for exaggerating the ways in which the Byrne character enables the boundaries between therapist and patients to become blurred.  But come on, this is a TV series; no fatal flaw, no drama.  If Duncan had died peacefully in his bed we’d have no Macbeth.

I found In Therapy had weaknesses, but it’s still one of HBO’s most successful artistic and dramatic productions, because of its self-imposed constraint and restraint.  That takes nerve, but it works.  This show proves that we don’t need vampires or guns to create nerve-shredding tension and deeply moving insights into the human psyche, to show the ways it causes us to hurt each other in mystifyingly painful ways, how resilient we can be when those who love and help us refuse to give up on us, but also how fragile we are and prone to destructive self-hate and misguided, toxic guilt.  And it’s not always our parents’ fault, Dr Freud.

Can’t wait to watch series 2 and 3.

Dr Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia photo)

Dr Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia photo)

A version of this review appeared on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 at Blogcritics